What David Bowie’s Basquiat Painting Teaches Us About the Art Market

The painting has come to auction twice before, with illuminating results.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Air Power (1984), from the collection of David Bowie. Courtesy Sotheby's London.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Air Power (1984), from the collection of David Bowie. Courtesy Sotheby's London.

The holdings of pop superstar, art collector, and artist David Bowie are headed to auction November 10 at Sotheby’s London, and the prize lot is a canvas by Jean-Michel Basquiat, titled Air Power (1984). It is estimated to sell for as much as £3.5 million ($4.3 million).

Showing a grimacing, full-length figure at the left and a masklike face at the center above a hatchet, among other imagery, the painting stands five and a half feet high; it has been exhibited in public just three times.

The painting has come to auction twice before, according to the artnet Price Database, and the ups and downs in its price might offer a lesson about holding on to prized works. Even as today’s art market has softened, this painting’s story may make you want to take the long view.

Also on offer from Bowie's collection is Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (1984). Courtesy Sotheby's London.

Also on offer from Bowie’s collection is Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (1984). Courtesy Sotheby’s London.

In November 1989, the year following Basquiat’s death by drug overdose, Air Power sold for $350,900 at Christie’s New York. Of the 101 Basquiats that came to auction in that year, only three sold for more. (His highest price in 1989 was set at Christie’s by the 10-foot-wide painting Arroz con Pollo, which fetched $484,000, setting an auction record for the artist.)

Bowie would buy the painting six years later at Christie’s London for the relative bargain hammer price of $132,134; correcting for inflation, that would be about $208,800 today.

“Time is a great friend when you’re buying amazing works,” said Sotheby’s head of contemporary art Grégoire Billault, in a phone conversation with artnet News. “Of course it always looks too expensive the day you buy it, since you’re the last one bidding!”

The ups and downs in price was a result of “huge speculation” in the artist’s market immediately following his death, Billault points out. Basquiat was a young superstar who had hobnobbed with the likes of Andy Warhol, Madonna, and Keith Haring; his tragic death from a drug overdose would only fuel his mystique.

The art market overall was vibrant in 1989, with the SoHo gallery scene on the rise. There were plenty of people with money to spend, and New York dealer Mary Boone, who first sold Air Power, in 1984, recalls that art was becoming only more and more popular among young Wall Street traders.

“Having a painting was about as normal as having a car,” she said, “whereas before that, that wasn’t always the case.”

By the end of 1990, though, the New York Times would be asking whether the art market boom was over.

Upon seeing an image of the painting, Boone was startled all over again at how good it looked.

“It has everything you want,” she said, pointing out the rich, full composition and painterly brushwork. “Look at the painting in the right-hand side in the middle—all these layers, but it doesn’t get muddy. It’s hard to do that. As he got more and more involved in drugs, the paintings got more minimal. This is from when Andy was alive and he was in good form.”

Warhol would die in 1987, three years after Basquiat painted Air Power.

The Pop artist is part of the reason Bowie first took an interest in the work, Billaut points out. The singer bought the painting a year before the release of Basquiat, Julian Schnabel’s movie about the artist, in which Bowie played a bewigged Warhol.

“Look at the character on the left,” Billault said of Air Power. “That is Bowie with the fright wig, and then the face is Basquiat.”


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